My Own True Love and I began our two weeks in England with a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. We did not find a bawdy Wife of Bath**, but there were plenty of tales.
The most famous Canterbury tale is the murder of Thomas Beckett, archbishop of Canterbury. Beckett was a hard partying buddy of King Henry II. When the then Archbishop of Canterbury died in 1161, Henry gave his friend, Thomas Beckett, the job. To Henry’s unhappy surprise, Beckett took the appointment seriously. He transformed himself from a pleasure-loving rowdy into a serious clergyman who was prepared to defend church privilege against secular incursions—even those from his old friend Henry. Archbishop and King butted heads for nine years. Then, in a moment of frustration, Henry cried out “Will no one rid me this turbulent priest?” This is not the kind of thing kings should say out loud unless they mean it. Four knights took Henry at his word and hacked Beckett to death in his own cathedral during vespers. Soon thereafter, people reported miracles occurring in the cathedral. The pope canonized the murdered archbishop.*** And pilgrims began to travel to Canterbury from all over Europe.
The Beckett shrine is moving, but the stories that really got me were those told in the small scale memorials installed along the sides of the nave recognizing British soldiers who died in wars large and small. A woman who lost her husband and four sons between 1905 and 1915, all highly decorated officers and all killed in battle. A lieutenant colonel who died on August 17, 1808, “while British Arms were successfully supporting the cause of Portugal against the usurpations of France”.**** The officers and men of the 13th Prince Albert’s Light Infantry who perished “whilst serving in Afghanistan, between the years of 1838 and 1842, whether from the fatigue of service or in action with the enemy.” The stories, in short, of men who are anonymous on the pages of history, but who are remembered in stone.
* You could argue that it’s stretching the definition of road trip when the journey starts with a transatlantic flight. But we have a car and My Own True Love is doing a splendid job of driving on the other side of the road. Feels like a road trip to me.
** Though I would argue that My Own True Love rivals Chaucer’s Knight in “chivalry, truth, honor, freedom and all courtesy”.
***Miracles or no miracles, this strikes me as a canny political move.
****A disproportionate number of memorials honor lieutenant colonels–the highest-ranking officers likely to be involved in front line combat, then and now.
A few travel notes for anyone interested in making her own pilgrimage to Canterbury:
- Organize your stay to include at lease one meal at at The Goods Shed, a farmers’ market with an excellent restaurant. (The butternut squash-goat cheese tart was so good I groaned with delight at the first bite.)
- Attend evensong at the cathedral. You’ll find the service moving even if you don’t believe or are a hard-shell Protestant.